With Obama largely absent from the campaign trail, Democrats turned to Biden

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
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CORRECTS DATE Vice President Joe Biden, left, and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, right, react to supporters during a campaign stop at at Century Village in Boca Raton, Fla., Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Crist is locked in a tight race against Gov. Rick Scott in one of the most negative gubernatorial campaigns in Florida history. The two disagree on most major issues, including health care, the minimum wage, Cuba policy, gay marriage and medical marijuana. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Vice President Joe Biden

Struggling Democrats largely kept President Barack Obama in political quarantine this year, shunning joint public appearances as though they feared his sagging approval ratings were contagious. First lady Michelle Obama has helped to fill the vacuum somewhat, but perhaps no one has worked as hard to help Democrats as Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden has labored all year to generate cash, supporters and positive headlines for his party’s candidates — as well as amass political chits he could call in should he decide to run for president in 2016.

In 2014 alone, the vice president has campaigned for 66 different candidates, local committees or Democratic Party branches and held 70 events in 22 states and Washington, D.C., according to figures provided last week by his office.

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"There's no question that Vice President Biden is appealing — he has spent his life in public service fighting for working families and the middle class,” said Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. “His straight-shooter style connects with people from every walk of life, and that was a real asset in both 2008 and 2012."

Biden’s pace recently accelerated to a nearly one-a-day schedule of rallies and fundraisers and showed no sign of slowing down before Tuesday. On Oct. 20, he starred at a rally for Rep. Dan Maffei in Syracuse, N.Y. Two days later, he headlined a rally for Rep. Brad Schneider in Vernon Hills, Ill. On Oct. 23, you could find Biden in Hibbing, Minn., at a rally for Rep. Rick Nolan. A few days later, the vice president dropped in on one of the most hard-fought and closely watched races in the country, the battle between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst for retiring liberal Senator Tom Harkin’s seat in Iowa.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden greets attendees at the 36th Annual Harkin Steak Fry on September 15, 2013 in Indianola, Iowa. Sen. Harkin's Democratic fundraiser is one of the largest in Iowa each year. (Steve Pope/Getty Images)

Peering out at about 150 people packed into a Davenport, Iowa, baseball park, Biden wasted no time in delighting national political headline writers eager for a clue about his 2016 plans.

"I look out there at that field and the first thing that comes to mind is: 'Put me in, coach, I'm ready to play,'" he said, invoking the John Fogarty song.

Braley emphasized that Biden "has been to Iowa so many times that he doesn't need GPS. He doesn't need a road map, he just needs to know where he's going, and he's going to get there because Iowans know him, they love him and they trust him." In 2007, Biden spent more days in Iowa than any other Democratic presidential hopeful, though in the end he came in a disappointing fifth on caucus night.

Biden’s usefulness as a surrogate for Obama dates back to the 2008 campaign and in fact is part of the reason he was selected as vice president: He can reach audiences that Obama, for a variety of reasons, is less able to connect with. Several Democrats contacted for this report pointed to the party’s need to recapture working-class white voters in 2014 and 2016 and said Biden could help.

“He’s so important to us because of his stance on the middle class, because he is so identified with fighting for the middle class,” Maffei told Yahoo News by phone. “He’s never forgotten where he’s come from.”

Biden went to law school in Syracuse, which is also home to the family of his first wife, who was killed in a car accident.

“It’s not like I’m running away from the president,” Maffei said. “But the vice president is special. He just feels like one of us — one of us who happens to be vice president of the United States.”

Still, Biden has not done campaign events for most of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats — Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, or Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire — his office confirmed. He also hasn’t campaigned for Democratic candidates Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky or Michelle Nunn in Georgia.

But Biden spoke a couple of weeks ago at the annual “Women of Valor” fundraiser in Seattle, which supports Hagan, Landrieu, Shaheen, Grimes, Nunn and its organizer, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington.

“The middle class is not a number, it’s a value set,” he declared. “It’s fading and we damned well need to re-establish it.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks as actress Eva Longoria, co-founder of the Latino Victory PAC, looks on at a get-out-the-vote rally at a union hall on November 1, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Biden and Longoria are stumping for Nevada Democrats ahead of the November 4th election. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The question for Biden is whether his all-out campaigning will secure Democratic victories, which in turn could aid a still-hypothetical run for the top job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Loyal local officials can provide critical primary fight get-out-the-vote efforts, drive local news coverage, and secure other endorsements for national candidates.

One senior Congressional Democratic aide, whose boss has not taken sides in the upcoming presidential contest, summed up the trouble for the vice president this way: “It’s an A-for-effort campaign in a Ready for Hillary world.”

That’s a reference to the Ready for Hillary super PAC that has been pushing the former first lady to run for president and is expected to provide fundraising and organizational muscle if she does, along with a list of the names of more than 3 million potential supporters. Biden has many friends in politics, but nothing quite so regimented and, well, ready.

Beyond the middle-class message, Democrats for whom Biden has campaigned emphasize his boundless energy and matchless enthusiasm — the same qualities that sometimes get him into trouble.

Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, for whom Biden campaigned on Oct. 27, told Yahoo News in a telephone interview that the vice president really “fired up the troops.”

Biden’s speech was on the teleprompter but “he barely used it,” she said with a laugh. “Whoever was operating it, they had to have been used to working with him. He would go off script about every paragraph.”

The vice president, who took selfies with well-wishers in the rope line, told Bustos’s 14-year-old great-niece “you have beautiful eyes,” the congresswoman said. Upon being told the girl looked like her mother, Biden insisted on calling to congratulate her and decided to leave a voice mail message.

“Lindsay, this is Joe, Joe Biden. The vice president. I just wanted to let you know that your daughter has beautiful eyes. She says she got them from you. You did a good job!” Bustos recalled Biden as saying.

Biden’s frenetic schedule will be judged on Tuesday, when the verdict of voters may set the stage for the next campaign.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know how much he moves the needle,” said another top Democratic congressional aide. “But he’s been raising money, certainly, and raising profiles, and that counts for something.”

“He is, always has been, the guy willing to come to help,” the aide said.

Should Biden run in 2016? Bustos declined to offer the vice president advice.

“I’m looking forward to electing a Democrat in 2016,” she said. “We just have to see how that’s all going to sort out, but I think Joe Biden should do what he thinks is best for him, what’s best for his family, and what he thinks is best for the country.”